Slaid Cleaves may not be a natural-born Texan (He’s originally from Portland, Maine. He has been in Texas for 20 years, though.), but he knows a thing or two about a thing or two. For starters, he knows about songwriting, and he shows it off here with a 2 disc set of his “greatest hits” — the songs that Cleaves jokes brought him from “total obscurity” to “relative obscurity.” His brand of Americana is focused more on the personal, rather than the political, and songs like “Broke Down,” “No Angel Knows, ” and “Breakfast in Hell,” (which Cleaves categorizes as a “narrative workplace disaster song”) testify to why The New York Times called him “one of the finest singer songwriters from Texas.”
Cleaves also knows that to make a live record special, “it has to be in a special place,” so he picked Austin’s Horseshoe Lounge, a place that held meaning long before he even stepped through the doors. Early in the show, he admits to being scared to go to “the Shoe” when he first moved to Austin, but obviously feels right at home now because this a very loose, intimate set. We get lots of playful banter between Cleaves and the audience and staff — which really lightens the mood of his hard-luck songs (After mentioning they were still getting set up early in the evening, we get, “More Michael on guitar,” from the audience and a “Thanks dad” in response.). He does have a couple songs here that are fun, including “Tumbleweed Stew,” which was pieced together from “crazy, redneck messages” left on Cleaves phone by a friend and “Horses,” which is about his parents neighbor, who always said, “If it weren’t for horses and divorces, I’d be a lot better off today.” “Horses,” which has some yodeling, also functions as a warm-up for Cleaves before for he takes on “Texas Top Hand” and “Rolling Stone from Texas,” both songs by the late Don Walser — the man who taught Cleaves to yodel (and taught him well). His takes on Walser’s songs are all the more interesting for what remains of his Maine roots in his accent. It lends a certain outside-looking-in quality.
Cleaves choice of accompaniment is solid as well. Michael O’Conner handles lead acoustic guitar and background vocals, while Oliver Steck is something a swiss army knife of talents. In addition of sharing background vocal duties, Steck plays accordian, harmonica, and trumpet, as well as taking on the role of “work gang captain,” leading the audience during “Breakfast in Hell.”
If you’re looking for a super-slick, mistake free live recording, this is not it and was never intended to be. There’s a false start, some dropped lyrics, and even Cleaves pausing mid-song to taunt Steck who apparently is contorting himself to reach a mic (“I was going to tell you Ollie, but that mic stand does operate. You can lift it up if you want. You don’t have to bend over . . . Or you can just get down on your knees and play if you want to — whatever you’d like.”). However, if you’re looking for a chance to experience something that sounds an awful lot like being there, it’s got that in spades.